The Volumetric Approach to History

You will be thinking that we are coming to the end of this book: we’ve dealt with eight centuries, so there are only two to go. You may be surprised to learn, therefore, that in historical terms we are not even halfway. The reason for this discrepancy is that history is not time, and time is not history. History is not the study of the past per se; it is about people in the past. Time, separated from humanity, is purely a matter for scientists and star-gazers. If a previously unknown uninhabited island were to be discovered it would have no history as such: its past would be studied by experts in natural history, botany and geology. We cannot write the history of the South Pole before mankind considered its significance and ventured to reach it. History is inextricably linked with what we have done, both as a species and as individuals. Thus a large country like Italy, with a population of 60 million and a huge cultural legacy from its past, has much more history than a small island with a tiny population. This is not being dismissive towards small islands; it simply reflects the fact that a country with 60 million people sees a million times more human experience every day than an island with just 60. There are a million more human exchanges, a million more social attitudes, and a million more diseases, aches and pains. We have to consider not just time passing but human time – that is, the volume of experience that a day or a year represents.

This volumetric approach to human time can be applied to compare centuries as well as different countries. If you add up all the days lived by people in Europe in the thousand years between 1001 and 2000, the relative proportions of the millennial population are shown in the pie chart on the right. If history were the same as time, the chart would show 10 equal divisions of 36 degrees. However, the differences in the chart are significant. We can see that the changes discussed in the first chapter of this book were actually experienced by about 3 per cent of the total European population over the millennium. All those earth-shattering changes of the sixteenth century were dealt with by less than 6 per cent. This is not to say that we should have treated those centuries with greater brevity – they saw profound changes that underpin everything that came later – but it does mean that if we are going to focus on the changes that affected the greatest number of people, then our judgement is going to be heavily skewed towards the last two centuries. In fact, the above chart is a significant underestimate of the modern bias in the West, for it does not include the populations of the USA, Australia, Canada, South Africa or New Zealand. Nor does it take account of the Westernised people in Latin American, India and the Far East. Worldwide, only about a third of history dates to the first eight centuries of the millennium. If the significance of any given change is weighted according to the number of people who experienced it, then we are now into the heavy division.


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 Millennium: From Religion to Revolution: How Civilization Has Changed Over a Thousand Years
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Mortimer, Ian (2016), Millennium: From Religion to Revolution: How Civilization Has Changed Over a Thousand Years, Retrieved on 2018-02-10
Folksonomies: history human progress